Before our move to Boston, Marnina and I volunteered at Camp Oasis, a week-long summer camp that enriches the lives of children living with IBD. Established by the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, the camp provides a supportive community that is beneficial to the campers’s growth and understanding of IBD. The camp is replete with a full physician staff, including doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals. The staff ensures that campers follow their medication, diet, and lifestyle regimens prescribed by their doctors back home. As counselors, Marnina and I provided guidance, safety, mentorship, and sometimes nursing duties. During camp (we attended the Pennsylvania location), we noticed that the campers learn best from each other. They learn that they are not alone; there are other people out there who truly understand their situation. The campers share their IBD stories and build confidence through these friendships.
Everyone at camp is able to learn something from each other. For some, it is a life changing experience. The first-timers begin to realize that IBD is not a completely ‘silent’ disease, and that through sharing their stories they can accept their disease, deal with it more confidently, and rise above their IBD. The returnees are able to strengthen their battle over IBD by acting as mentors to the first-timers, and they are also bound to learn something new.
Other than the massive amounts of medication handed out during meal times and the lack of bathroom availability trhoughout the day, the camp is mostly identical to any other summer camp. There are land and water sports, outdoor adventures, and even some leadership development. Most shocking though, the food is also identical to other camps, meaning, the food is fatty, salty, sugary, greasy, fried, and all those other negative adjectives. Many of the campers have food restrictions prescribed by their doctors, but the campers do not have the self-control, and sometimes lack the knowledge, to make smart food choices. Some campers bring their own food because they are on a special diet – one of the campers was on an all-liquid diet, and he had not eaten a morsel of food in seven years. He lives on nutrient-filled orange juice boxes. Others were dairy free or gluten free. While there is no set list of foods that are perfect for campers with IBD, the food provided at camp is surely not helping these campers achieve their optimum growth, and the food is not teaching them proper dietary habits.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner was served cafeteria-style and consisted of basic comfort foods such as pancakes, chicken pot pie, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken parmesan, and lasagna. There would always be one or two side dishes, such as french fries or potato chips, but there were hardly any vegetables served. We saw something green maybe twice the entire week….and no, green jello is not a vegetable. Dessert often included some type of pie or cake, and many campers helped themselves to multiple servings. Thankfully, every meal was supplemented with a salad bar that had lettuce, tomatoes, canned vegetables such as green beans and beets, but the campers would often douse their ‘salad’ with creamy salad dressings.
As foodies interested in improving the nutrition environment in all settings (especially in a Crohn’s and colitis camp!), we are on a mission to change the food offerings at Camp Oasis. Campers with IBD need better food options, and even though it is impossible to offer a menu that fits everyone’s dietary needs, the current food lineup is not conducive to protecting the health of the campers. We are also interested in setting up a cooking class as one of the activities to teach the campers about how diet influences health, and to give them some recipes that fit their particular dietary needs. For example, we would prepare a recipe with different age groups and demonstrate how the recipe can be modified to be made gluten free or dairy free. The campers would then have hard copies of the recipes to bring home to their parents (who would hopefully recreate the dish to meet their child’s needs). As we work to achieve our goals, we will keep you updated on our progress.